Smoothing the transition to sea-freighted flowers from Kenya to the Netherlands

Testing on cut flowers at Wageningen University & Research.

Testing on cut flowers at Wageningen University & Research.

Wageningen University & Research’s ‘Towards Sustainable flower distribution from Kenya’ project investigates how to more effectively enable Kenyan rose growers exporting their roses to the Netherlands by sea freight instead of by aeroplane in the April 2023 edition of FloraCulture International.

Strong interest in exporting flowers by sea freight to cut transportation costs, reduce the industry’s carbon footprint and overall enhance the sustainability and efficiency of the industry are the basis for the project entitled ‘Towards sustainable flower distribution from Kenya – making the transition from air to sea freight’ currently being developed by Dutch-based Wageningen University&Research. Various partners collaborate with the project, including flower food manufacturer Chrysal International, Kuehne+Nagel, FlowerWatch, Royal Flora Holland, X-Pol, Verdel, retailer COOP CH, Kenyan growers/exporters like Sian Group, Mzurrie Flowers and a Dutch rose grower. The Kenya Flower Council is also involved.

Ms Fatima Pereira da Silva, researcher and innovation project manager at the postharvest quality group of Wageningen Food & Biobased.

Ms Fatima Pereira da Silva, researcher and innovation project manager at the postharvest quality group of Wageningen Food & Biobased.

Several hurdles persist

To learn more about the project, its overall goals and progress so far, FloraCulture International interviewed Ms Fatima Pereira da Silva, experienced research and innovation project manager at the Postharvest quality of Wageningen Food&Biobased Research who leads the team conducting this study.
Commenting on the start of the project and its aim, she says, “Wageningen has been working on protocols for sea transport of cut flowers for some time now, and these have provided useful information and support for exporters from Kenya. However, several hurdles persist, the most notable of which is inconsistent quality. Why does this happen, what are the factors influencing the success of sea freight, and how can they be properly addressed? The need for clear answers that can lead to minimising losses associated with quality variations convinced partners to collaborate and conduct research in this respect.
The Dutch government funds the project through the Top Consortium for Knowledge and Innovation (TKI).

Three main sections

The project includes three main sections, each aimed at determining more clearly the role played by:
1. The production process –cultural practices, crop protection, fertilisation and watering, etc.
2. Postharvest handling and management – harvesting, rehydration, cooling, packaging
3. A support model was developed to guide users in choosing the correct transport modality in terms of cost, carbon footprint (CO2 emissions), and vase life and flower quality.
The three sections interrelate with each other and are strongly influenced by additional factors such as the time of year, the destination and variety.

How to deal with variables?

Flower production and export involve many variables. How is Pereira da Silva dealing with them?
“This is a very important issue. In order to better evaluate factors influencing the quality and propose solutions to overcome negative impacts, we decided to minimise variables and focus on very concrete questions at this stage. Otherwise, the project was going to become a challenge in itself! So we are working exclusively on Kenyan-grown cut roses exported to the Netherlands in containers subjected to controlled atmosphere conditions, where we carefully monitor relative humidity, CO2 concentration and temperature. We are looking very closely at the entire cold chain. We expect that later, it will be possible to extrapolate some results to other flowers. And very possibly other product/destination market combinations, thus increasing the usefulness of our research. But at this stage, it is important to reduce variables.”

Controlled atmosphere

Colombia and Ecuador have acquired much experience with sea-freighted cut flowers for years. South American flowers shipped to Miami are at sea for a much shorter period of time and less frequently use a controlled atmosphere. Exporters from Colombia and Ecuador sustain that a well-managed cold chain is sufficient to keep flowers fresh during their voyage.
Pereira Da Silva comments, “Flowers shipping from Kenya have a long way to go, longer than from South American countries, with an overhaul/trans-shipment at Salala or Jeda. This plays a role in the outcome. Once again, to reduce variables, we have chosen to always go with a controlled atmosphere (CA). That said, I cannot vouch for CA being absolutely essential, and that could well be looked at in the future.”

Preliminary findings

Asked about the preliminary findings which emerged from the research project, she says, “For one, the length of the shipping process. Flowers leaving Kenya can take between 28 and 35 days to reach the Netherlands (usually the port of Rotterdam), and this variation is simply too wide. It mainly has to do with logistics and needs work, as it really hampers flower marketing by making it impossible to cater to specific delivery dates requested by customers or getting flowers to the market in time for special occasions or peak consumption periods.”

Complexity of consolidated shipments

The quantity of flowers a container can hold is another challenge. “Few companies are large enough to fill an entire container, and although consolidating shipments comes quickly to mind as a feasible solution, it’s more complicated than it seems. We have monitored the cold chain around the consolidation process, which is not ideal. This is influenced by factors that can be fixed – albeit with some investment – for example, ensuring temperature regulation in trucks is in top condition, but also others which are more difficult such as roads in poor condition that make transit lengthy and difficult. There are many things that can improve the cold chain, for example, using standard-size boxes that allow for optimum stacking and better cold air circulation within the container. The project is looking at these factors as well.”

Room for improvement

Generally speaking, there’s room for improvement. “Some port facilities are not fully adapted for handling flowers – this includes training staff, logistics, enhancing infrastructure and others.”
Regarding the production and post-harvest processes, how does Pereira da Silva identify trends, challenges and areas needing further work? “Together with my team, the partners, growers and others involved in the project, we are working directly with their farms. We analyse and monitor production practices and how these may influence the end result focusing on flower quality. These findings may give input to the post-harvest protocols now being put forward by commercial parties. At this stage, we are not yet focusing on specific areas, such as packaging, but we are confirming some trends and identifying new ones. Clearly, rose cultivars behave differently – sometimes widely to the point where some seem unsuited for sea freight – so we have opted for selecting only a few for this stage of the study, once again to reduce variables.” These are very commonly grown varieties.
It is safe to assume that Pereira Da Silva’s hands are full; the research will lead to interesting outcomes and useful solutions but will also raise new questions. In that respect, three years (one already up) seems like a short time to find all answers. No doubt, the project partners are on the correct path towards “developing more robust (reliable and predictable), cost-effective and sustainable (carbon footprint) technologies for flower transport from Kenya.

Wageningen University & Research, in association with the International Society for Horticultural Science (ISHS), announce the VII International Conference Post-Harvest Unlimited & XII International Symposium on Post-Harvest Quality of Ornamental Plants taking place at the Omnia Dialogue Centre of WUR in Wageningen between 14-17 May 2023.
Keynote speakers include Sjoukje Heimovaara, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; Thijs Defraeye, EMPA, Switzerland; Leo Lukasse,
Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands; Fisun Celikel, Ondokuz Mayis University, Türkiye; Dimitrios Fanourakis, Hellenic Mediterranean University, Greece; Bart Nicolai, KU Leuven, Belgium; Paul Arens, Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands; Rick van de Zedde, Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands; Brian Farneti, Fondazione Edmund Mach, Italy; Romina Pedreschi, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile; Ernst Woltering, Wageningen
University and Research, the Netherlands; Julian Verdonk, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; Puneet Mishra, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands; and Arnaud Bovy, Wageningen University and Research, the Netherlands.
Visit WUR: Postharvest Unlimited Conference & Postharvest Ornamentals Symposium.

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